HUNDREDS of thousands members of IG Metall union, Germany’s largest trade union, are engaged in short-term ‘warning strikes’ against 80 companies, for the right to take up to two years’ worth of 28-hour working weeks.
This is a kind of ‘work-life-balance’ leave that has evolved out of the country’s existing parental leave, but would allow workers to take extra time to care for ageing relatives. IG Metall said that more than 376,000 employees in the engineering sector had gone on warning strikes so far this year since a non-strike period ended on December 31st.
With unemployment at record lows and 1.1 million jobs open across the country, the workers have real bargaining power and they’re not afraid to use it. Under the union proposals, workers who opt for a 28-hour week in order to take care of young children or ageing parents would get an additional allowance of 200 euros per month.
Those who want to take a break from doing shift work with a high health risk would be compensated with 750 euros per year. With the German economy in robust health and unemployment at record lows, IG Metall is also calling for a 6 per cent pay increase for around 3.9 million workers in the metal and engineering sectors, including the car industry.
IG Metall said it would decide on January 26th, after the current round of wage talks, whether to escalate the dispute into 24-hour strikes. A union spokesperson said: ‘We want employers to recognise that traditional gender roles in modern families are changing, and we want workers to have the chance to do work that is important to society. In the past, demands for more flexibility has come at the cost to workers. We want to flick a switch so that flexible working also benefits workers.’
10,000 workers at German carmaker Daimler AG walked off their shifts for an hour last Tuesday as they sought to persuade employers to give engineering workers around Germany more pay and a shorter working week.
Some 4,000 employees at other companies in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg took part in strikes last Tuesday and further warning strikes took place last Wednesday at other companies, including at domestic appliance maker Miele.
Regional IG Metall head Roman Zitzelsberger said in a rally at the gates of Daimler’s factory in the town of Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart that: ‘The economy is booming because the employees like those here at Daimler do good work every day. So 6 per cent is appropriate and we won’t be fobbed off with 2 per cent.’
Over 30,000 workers downed tools on Wednesday morning, including over 8,000 staff at Opel factories, IG Metall said in a statement. ‘It’s a strong signal for pay talks and for PSA in France,’ IG Metall chief Joerg Hofmann said of the strike at Opel’s main site in Ruesselsheim.
PSA acquired Opel-Vauxhall last year and has been pursuing a restructuring plan to return it to profitability. Wednesday’s strikes meant around 468,000 industrial workers have taken part in action since last week, the union said.
• Chancellor Angela Merkel is putting Germany on course for a US backlash over Germany’s large trade surplus and ‘rampant protectionism’, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned.
Germany’s current account surplus is up to almost £252bn ($350bn) 8.5 per cent of GDP, and now the world’s largest. The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, on Thursday joined calls from a growing number of economists for substantially bigger German investments in the years ahead.
Speaking at a conference with top economists and policymakers in Frankfurt, Germany, Lagarde noted increasing investments would ‘help to reduce global imbalances which we’re concerned about at the IMF’.
She said: ‘The rise of rampant protectionism or protectionism threats is certainly not unrelated to the accumulation of current account surpluses in some countries.’ She also called on German policymakers and companies to encourage wage growth so as to boost inflation in the 19-member eurozone.
She said: ‘We have also advised the government in Berlin to spend more on reforms that help women go back to work, such as opening more child care centres and kindergartens’ as well as ‘creating training programmes for refugees’.
Lagarde hinted she saw no reason why Germany couldn’t spend budget surpluses to invest more in public infrastructure such as roads, railways and digitalisation. Some of her remarks met with a rather frosty reception from German bankers and leading economists.
The Bundesbank, the finance ministry, and the Council of Economic Experts, said Germany requires huge savings to prepare for an ageing crunch and a future collapse in the trend rate of economic growth, even if its current policies are distorting the global economic system.
They warned that ill-timed fiscal stimulus would destabilise Germany while doing little to help Europe or the rest of the world. German central bank chief Jens Weidmann argued his country should ‘maintain a safety margin to the existing fiscal rules in the face of looming demographic changes’.
Bundesbank president, Weidmann, insisted that increased spending was not the solution, arguing that what was required was ‘a shift in public expenditure from consumption to investment’. He added: ‘Raising public spending in order to reduce Germany’s current account surplus would likely be a futile undertaking.’
Weidmann said the German surplus is the result of millions of decisions in Germany and abroad, adding that he does not know of any ‘misaligned incentives such as protectionist measures to impede imports or promote exports’. At the same conference, IMF chief economist Maury Obstfeld urged Germany to boost inflation in order to help lift weaker parts of the eurozone, overburdened by debt, off the floor. Obstfeld said the trade surplus is unhealthy with fingers now being pointed at the savings by Germany’s big businesses which do not want their pot of money devalued by inflation.
• French prison guards union CGT Penitentiaire has blamed the country’s authorities for their disregard for prison employees, and negligence of the workers’ poor working conditions and threats to their safety as nationwide protests entered their fifth day.
Ambroise Koubi, CGT Penitentiaire regional secretary for Paris, said: ‘It’s a legitimate action on behalf of the penitentiary organisations like ours – firstly, taking into account the negligence and the misunderstanding of the justice minister. If something like that happened with the police, the interior minister would react immediately… And here, the incident took place last Thursday (January 11), and only on Saturday, the justice minister came to meet the labour unions representing the prison guards. The debates that we had were carried out in a spirit of contempt to the agents, they shut the door in the face of the CGT, FO and L’Ufap Unsa (trade unions).’
The unrest was sparked by an assault on prison guards by a radicalised inmate in a prison in the French northern commune of Vendin-le-Vieil on January 11.
French Justice Minister, Nicole Belloubet, received the trade unions representing the country’s prison guards only two days later, where the latter hoped to receive specific proposals to improve their hard working conditions.
On January 15th, French President Emmanuel Macron said a ‘global plan’ to improve the working conditions of the prison guards would be presented in February as a response to the demonstrations.
Next day, Belloubet arrived at the infamous prison in Vendin-le-Vieil, where she was greeted by the angry crowd. According to the CGT’s Koubi, the failure to provide a prompt response to the issue resulted in the further rise in tensions between the authorities and the protesters.